Are You Carnal or Spiritual?

Are you Carnal or Spiritual?

“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal.  For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?”  1Cor. 3:1-3

The definition of the word carnal in

  1. pertaining to or characterized by the flesh or the body, its passions and appetites; sensual.
  1. not spiritual; merely human; temporal; worldly.

The idea is that if something is carnal it has to do with our physical body.  There is also an implication that the meaning encompasses not only the physical body itself, or our flesh, but also all the things that are physical and therefore can be sensed by our body, especially those things that our body craves, like the “passions and appetites” mentioned in the definition.  Also, in the secondary definition, it can refer to anything that is “not spiritual” but  is of this world and therefore temporary.

The original Greek word used in the Scriptures is “sarkikos” meaning “pertaining to the flesh, i.e. bodily, temporal”.   It is translated as either carnal or fleshly.  The root of “sarkikos” is “sarx” meaning “flesh, i.e. the meat of an animal (as food), or the body (as opposed to the soul or spirit), or as the symbol of what is external.  This word also is translated as carnal or flesh.

I think the meaning is similar to the English dictionary definition, that is, that it refers to physical, temporary things of this world, as opposed to the eternal, spiritual things that we cannot see, hear, smell, or touch.

Words can take on new meaning over the years so we need to be careful about what is really being communicated in the Scriptures regarding carnality.  We must recognize that understanding carnal verses spiritual behavior is extremely important and a critical factor in our maturity as Christians.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, quoted above, he states that being carnal is the equivalent of being a baby in Christ.  We obviously do not want to remain a baby Christian for too long, but should be moving towards maturity in Christ.  Paul gives clear direction in this section of Scripture.  To become mature in Christ, we need to transition from being carnal to being spiritual.  As part of this maturity, we become able to digest more mature “food” as opposed to “baby food” or “milk”, as Paul points out.  One of the characteristics of becoming spiritual is that we have the ability to understand and discern spiritual truths.  Our perception of circumstances, and the way that we regard our situations and the events in our life, is at the core of our becoming spiritual.  Let’s look deeper into this.

In the 3rd chapter of 1 Corinthians, after the statement quoted above, Paul uses an example of why he considered them to be carnal, beyond what he mentioned as the fruit of their carnality, that is, the envy, strife and divisions.  Here’s his example: (1 Cor. 3: 4-9) “For when one says, ‘I am of Paul,’ and another, ‘I am of Apollos,’ are you not carnal?  Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one?  I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.  So then, neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.  Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers, you are God’s field, you are God’s building.”

The Corinthians were viewing Paul and Apollos from a purely physical perspective and were applying an approach to the situation that was based on how the world would function.  They were attempting to associate themselves with the talents and abilities of either Paul or Apollos and the success that either had in their preaching or teaching at Corinth.  One group was claiming to be associated with Paul, and the other associated with Apollos.  Reading between the lines somewhat, you might surmise that one group was impressed with the powerful display of the spirit that Paul had manifested at Corinth previously, or perhaps Paul had some fame within the Christian communities in the area that they wanted to be connected with.  Similarly, Apollos had some success or impressive display that they wanted to be associated with.  Isn’t this what we do?  We like to be associated with success or something or someone that impresses others.  We drive a car that we think impresses others.  We like to drop names of impressive or famous people we may have met or know.  This is what was happening at Corinth.  This is what Paul was exposing.

At the core of this error, the people were removing God, and His (very real) involvement, from the situation.  They were only considering the physical, visible items of the situation, and allowing this view to further feed their flesh resulting in envy, strife and division.  The correction was to consider the hidden, invisible items that were impacting the situation.  These items were just as real, but unseen.  As Hebrews 11 states, (in the Amplified Bible) that faith is “…the proof of things we do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses]”.  Paul uses the analogy of farming to illustrate this point.  Like the farmer who only plants a seed and waters it, he has nothing to do with the actual growth of the plant, but only God makes the plant grow; therefore, the farmer has a minor role in this situation, but it is God who has caused the increase in plant growth and fruit production for food.  Likewise, Paul and Apollos had nothing to do with the growth in the Christians at Corinth, but rather it was God who caused the growth.  Paul and Apollos only “planted seeds” and “watered”.  This is the spiritual reality that was missed by the Corinthians who were looking with their carnal eyes.

The fact that there was envy, strife and division resulting from the situation indicates that there was more going on than Paul discusses, more than just some folks saying “I’m of Paul/Apollos”.  We can only speculate that some people were most likely excluded from a group for some reason causing the envy and bickering. This brings me to the second important characteristic that is needed to transition from walking after the flesh to walking after the Spirit.  Not only do you need to change your perspective, but you must also make sure that you have put your flesh “to death” as instructed by the Scriptures.  You must “die with Christ” and consider yourself dead to this world.  Paul had emphasized this point earlier in his letter: (1 Cor. 1: 22-31) “For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; be we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  For you see your calling brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.  But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’” 

To die to this world is to no longer glory in the flesh or glory in worldly things, but to glory only in the Lord and in spiritual things.  It means to no longer consider yourself a part of this world, but rather, having died with Christ, now consider yourself as “in Christ Jesus”, that is, living for heaven, where Christ is, and living under the authority of His lordship, recognizing that He is the King of Kings who will soon return to establish His Kingdom here, creating a new heaven and new earth.  We glory in this, but we do not glory in the things of this world.  Having this attitude and walking in the reality of these spiritual truths will prevent us from feeding the flesh.  Being dead to the world leaves us with no opportunity for the desires of the flesh to take root and incubate, resulting in the fruit of the flesh and ultimately results in sin.

If the people at Corinth were dead to this world, they would not have cared what group they were a part of, they would not have been envious of the prestige of being associated with Paul or Apollos.  It would not have mattered to them.  Being associated with Christ would have been all that mattered.  They would not have “gloried” in being a part of a worldly group, but only gloried in being in Christ Jesus.

It is important to recognize that the battle we are fighting is in our thoughts and the way we think and perceive our surroundings and the situations we go though in life.  Paul asks the question of the Corithians: “….are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?”  According to a footnote from the New King James version translators, the literal meaning of “behaving like mere man” is “walking according to man”.  The concept of “walking” is how you guide your life, including the way that you think through circumstances, etc.  The indication is that we need to guide our life and guide our thoughts not according to man, and the things of man in this world, but rather, we need to guide our life, or “walk” according to the spiritual things, the things of God. Our view of the things of this life is greatly influenced by our world view, or our philosophy of life.  Our world view needs to be focused on our hope in heaven and the promise of eternal life in Jesus.  Establishing this truth in our life through our faith will impact every situation that we face in life.  It will guide all of our actions and decisions.  Our world view is established at the cross of Christ when we die with Him, and then live a new life as a new creature, dead to this world, and living for heaven.

The 8th chapter in Romans also supports the importance of having our mind set on the spiritual things and not physical, earthly, or carnal things: “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit……..for those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.  For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

Christians become good at hiding carnality.  We can clean up the external areas of our life that are visible to others, but it is the internal, deeper thoughts that are more difficult to change.  We can clean up our foul language, and put on a smile, and say the right Christian words, but if we are still functioning “according to man” with our heart and mind set on only the physical things, and if we have not put to death the desires that feed our flesh and cause us to glory in anything other than the Lord, than we are carnal, and not spiritual.

If you find yourself in this position of carnality, you must repent, or change the way you think.  You must re-focus your hope on heaven and die with Christ to this world and the temporary hope that it offers.  You must treasure only what God has promised through Jesus.  You must begin to walk in the truths of the spirit, with your eyes open to the hidden workings of the Holy Spirit.  This is what will give you victory in your Christian walk.

All of us need to encourage ourselves in this direction of spiritual awareness.  We all need to be reminded of watching our hearts and the things that we glory in.  We need to fill our thoughts with the truths of God’s word to build up our faith. We need to set our hearts and minds on the things of the Spirit.  We need to stay connected with the Lord, constant in prayer.  Let’s run this race for the prize.  Let’s continue strong and focused on the things that are true.



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